the fourth part of my deep dive into intuitive eating covering what it is, how to begin to put it into practice and my take on it as a registered dietitian.
Today’s post is all about making peace with food, the third principle of Tribole and Resch’s Intuitive Eating program.
If you missed previous posts in this series, you can catch up now:
- Intuitive Eating: What Is It? – a basic overview of what the Intuitive Eating program is
- Intuitive Eating: Reject the Diet Mentality – a discussion of the first principle within the Intuitive Eating program
- Intuitive Eating: Honoring Your Hunger – a conversation about the importance of listening to your body and the very real biological responses that occur when we don’t.
And you can always find all the posts I publish in this series right here should you wish to revisit one at any point.
If you follow me on Instagram, then you know how much I love and rely on trail mix. So would you believe me when I said that there was once a time when I wouldn’t even touch the stuff?
It’s true. When I went through my struggle all those years ago, I was terrified of the stuff. Not necessarily because I shouldn’t be eating it, but because whenever I ate it, I ate the entire bag. I felt out of control when I was eating it and deemed it a food that I just couldn’t be trusted around.
What I didn’t realize back then (and what took me some time to finally realize as I reconnected with intuitive eating) is that this wasn’t happening because I didn’t have self-control or because of trail mix specifically…it happened because:
- I wasn’t honoring my hunger or fueling my body properly, so my biology was taking over in an attempt to get much-needed energy.
- I wasn’t at peace with food and just the very fact that I considered trail mix a food that was ‘off-limits’ because I was ‘out of control’ when I ate it, was setting me up to overeat it.
Think about all the times you’ve told yourself you ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ have a certain type of food. Do you often find that the moment you tell yourself that, it’s all you want? Or, if you successfully abstain from it for a while, do you find that as soon as you re-introduce it, you tend to overeat it?
The minute we tell ourselves something is off-limits (food, or otherwise!) it’s suddenly all we want…and usually it’s all we want in mass quantity because we feel deprived. It becomes the forbidden fruit, the only thing we’ve ever wanted. It’s just like when I ask Owen not to touch something. His immediate next response is to touch the thing I asked him not to.
Our psychological response to deprivation is powerful and the very act of telling ourselves we can’t have something (even before we’ve abstained!), makes us want it that much more.
Sometimes that’s a good thing (i.e. if in business someone tells you you’ll never reach a certain goal, that can drive you to work hard and get it). With food, it usually results in intense cravings, a hyper-focus on that food and overeating followed by guilt and a cycle of restriction and bingeing (you overate, so you restrict, you restricted so you overeat and so on and so on…) that can feel very hard to get out of.
Tribole and Resch’s describe the pattern of restriction followed by overeating in their book as “deprivation backlash.” No matter how long we’re able to “hold out” and abstain from a certain food, deprivation backlash always finds us.
If you’ve ever felt alone in this, I’m telling you that you’re not. The responses you experience when you restrict are not shameful. They’re universal and very normal as the body and mind attempt to rectify the situation. There are a number of great, relatable case studies in this chapter of Tribole and Resch’s book. I highly recommend reading them if you’ve ever felt like you’re the only one experiencing this!
Individuals who restrict their intake via self-imposed rules often experience what Tribole and Resch discuss as the what-the-hell effect. Essentially, that moment when you’ve eaten (or even considered eating) something ‘off-limits’ and all those self-imposed rules you’ve set up fly out the window. You’ve ‘screwed up’ so now it’s time to throw caution to the wind and eat whatever you want, rules be damned. This attitude usually results in overeating to the point of feeling sick. I think we’ve all experienced this at some point of another when we’ve tried to deny ourselves something.
Studies on restrained eaters have shed a lot of psychological light in the world of dieting. They show how ineffective outlawing particular foods can be, and how it sets you up for overeating”Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works
This overeating is often driven by immense feelings of guilt for ‘failing.’ Tribole and Resch describe this as the “seesaw syndrome.” When you’re depriving yourself, the guilt you feel about eating the ‘wrong’ things is very low. The longer you deprive yourself, the lower your guilt is (think of a seesaw with deprivation on one end and guilt on the other…as your deprivation rises, your guilt lowers). When your guilt is low like this, you can ‘justify’ allowing yourself a little wiggle room. It may start in a very controlled way, a cookie here, a piece of bread there, whatever it was you were denying yourself. However, each time you ‘give-in,’ the deprivation side of the seesaw goes down and the guilt rises a little more. Eventually the guilt side of the seesaw is in the air while deprivation is on the ground until you begin to deprive yourself again because you can’t take the feelings of guilt. Up and down you go with this with no real end in sight (because like we discussed, deprivation backlash will always find you, so deprivation will never stay high in the air!)
This where the idea of unconditional permission to eat whatever you want comes into play. It’s the only way to break this cycle.
Like we talked about in the first post of this series, that can be an incredibly scary thing for many. It’s OKAY if it’s scary to you and if you feel like you’re not ready to take that on yet. Like I’ve said over and over again, learning to become an intuitive eater is a journey and it doesn’t happen over night.
When you feel ready to move forward with this step, here’s where you should start:
- Rid yourself of the idea that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. As I’ve said so many times before, no one food is going to cause weight gain or loss.
- Listen to your body and your cravings and eat those foods. This really requires you to let go of what you think you should be eating and eating what you want (even if that’s chocolate cake for breakfast)
- Eat with no strings attached. As we talked about in the first post, this doesn’t work if you’re secretly telling yourself that you’re going to ‘get back on track tomorrow.’ To make peace with food, you need to let go of the notion that another diet or ‘getting back on track’ is around the corner. This part of the intuitive eating process is not about nutrition or weight loss, it’s about making peace with food.
If this is scary to you, I don’t blame you. For those who have followed some sort of restrictive eating pattern for a while, the idea of giving up all control can feel terrifying. I remember feeling the same exact way when trying to reconnect with intuitive eating. I had a lot of false starts where I told myself I would eat without inhibition, but somewhere in the depths of my brain, I still had some of my old rules floating around.
It wasn’t until I finally let my guard down and literally just ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted that I really made peace with food. And you know what? Half the foods that I thought I was dying to eat, didn’t even taste that good once I let myself have them. I remember eating a Poptart once just because it was there and it was a food I never would have allowed myself previously and it tasted like stale cardboard. I couldn’t even finish it (because it was so unenjoyable, NOT because I felt guilty) and had to laugh at myself for holding it in such high regard simply because I deemed it ‘off-limits.’
For those that have expressed the fear that you’ll never stop eating or you’ll gain an endless amount of weight, I’m telling you that the opposite is true. Once you truly take everything off the “do not eat” list and give yourself permission to eat anything, the allure of those ‘off-limit’ foods wears off (as does the guilt and thus overeating). And the act of allowing yourself to eat whatever you want, and actually seeing that you’re not out of control builds that trust we talked about. Your body begins to trust you as you begin to listen to it and allow it to find its equilibrium. You, in turn, also begin to trust your body as episodes of guilt-driven overeating die down.
“…the process of giving yourself permission to eat is actually the stepping-stone to rebuilding your trust with food and with yourself. In the beginning, each positive food experience is like a tiny thread. They may be few and far between, and seem insignificant, but eventually the threads form a strand…[which] multiply into strong ropes…[that] finally become the bridge to a foundation of trust in food and in yourself”Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works
When I first started this phase of the intuitive eating process, I ate whatever I wanted – even if that meant candy for breakfast or pizza for dinner every night. But eventually, as the allure of the off-limit foods wore off, I found I wanted more nourishing foods. I started craving fruit, salads, yogurt…not because I felt like I should, but just because it’s what I wanted!
“In case after case, when people are given free choice and access to all varieties of food after going through the peace process, they end up balancing their intake to include mostly nutritious foods with a smattering of ‘play foods.'”Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works
Once I let go of all the restrictive rules, I was able to eat and taste everything without feelings of guilt crowding the experience and determine what I actually wanted and liked.
Is this step easy? No. Can it be scary? Absolutely. But I can tell you with absolute certainty (because I’m living proof!) that pushing past your fear and getting through this phase of intuitive eating is critical to the process and building a healthier relationship with food.
If you feel ready to take on this phase of the IE process, but would like a little more guidance, Tribole and Resch have a 5 Step Guide to getting started in their book that I think is very helpful!